Leader Of Anti-Semitic Party In Hungary Finds Out He's Jewish

One of the founders of Hungary's far-right Jobbik Party has discovered he is Jewish, and that his grandmother is an Auschwitz survivor. Now, he keeps kosher, attends synagogue and visits Israel.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now an election story in Europe with a strange twist. As we've been reporting, in European Parliament elections this week, far-right parties did particularly well including Hungary's Jobbik party. They are known for, among other things, being anti-Semitic. It turns out their former second-in-command is Jewish. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Budapest.

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CSANAD SZEGEDI: (Speaking foreign language).

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Csanad Szegedi was a notorious radical who often railed against Jews, as in this speech four years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

SZEGEDI: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: Like many Hungarian extremists, his radicalism evolved from a staunch hatred of communist. Szegedi helped found the now banned Hungarian Guard, whose members wore uniforms similar to that of a pro-Nazi party that ruled the country in the final months of World War II. Szegedi and other members of the Jobbik party, of which he eventually became vice chairman and represented in the European Parliament, accused Jewish Hungarians of helping Israel try to colonize their country.

But these days, the tall Hungarian calls himself Dovid and wears a black skull cap. He regularly attends synagogues, studies Hebrew and the Torah and keeps kosher. Szegedi was on a religious pilgrimage to Israel when I recently interviewed him.

SZEGEDI: (Through translator) For 30 years I lived a harmful, aggressive and radical life with extreme views. Now I'm taking the time to reconsider my life and my expectations and where to go next.

NELSON: It's a life change that he says came about two years ago with the startling revelation by his maternal grandmother. After some prodding, she told him she is actually Jewish and an Auschwitz survivor. He says he then started on the path to becoming an observant Jew with the help of a Hungarian Rabbi. Back in Budapest, Jobbik spokesmen and Hungarian Parliament member Marton Gyongyosi says their party at first embraced Szegedi's religious conversion.

MARTON GYONGYOSI: We said OK. I mean, it's not the origin and the religion that we look at but more what values Mr. Szegedi represents.

NELSON: That may have been the party line. But the groups extremist rank and file didn't buy it, says Szabolcs Pogonyi. He's an assistant professor of nationalism studies at Central European University here and describes what he read on extremist websites.

SZABOLCS POGONYI: This is what Jews do. They try to infiltrate us. This is again a confirmation that you can't trust Jews.

NELSON: Lawmaker Gyongyosi says the Jobbik party ultimately forced Szegedi out when they uncovered a recording in which he tried to bribe an opponent who threatened to reveal his Jewish heritage in 2010. Szegedi denies the claim and says he chose to leave before they could throw him out. He says he decided not to run in Sunday's European Parliament elections because there is no Hungarian political party he can identify with.

But Szegedi is having a hard time convincing many Hungarians, especially Jewish ones, that he's abandoned his radical past. They accuse him of being an opportunist who hasn't publicly atoned for fanning anti-Semitic discourse in Hungry. Mircea Cernov says that kind of anti-Semitism is responsible for a monument under construction next to a fountain in downtown Budapest. It portrays Hungary as a victim rather than Germany's accomplice in the Holocaust. Cernov heads the Haver Foundation, which tries to combat prejudice here.

MIRCEA CERNOV: I think this Szegedi guy is a clown. Maybe will be better if he would take his grandma and maybe go in schools and having a dialogue with him - with them about his past, about his grandmother.

NELSON: Back in Jerusalem, Szegedi says such comments hurt but won't keep him from pursuing his goal of becoming an observant Jew.

SZEGEDI: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: He says while he understands people are angry, they shouldn't judge him until they've walked in his shoes. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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